Overlapping, highly contagious COVID subvariants are spreading fast in Florida

Authors: David Schutz, Cindy Krischer Goodman June 4, 2022 Sun Sentinel

Overlapping waves of omicron are sweeping through the state, leading more people to get infected with COVID.

The more transmissible BA.2.12.1 omicron subvariant became officially dominant in the U.S. last week, yet it already is being pushed out nationally by newcomers BA.4 and BA.5, both of which have arrived in Florida.

While BA.2.12.1 has gained an advantage by being more contagious than the omicron subvariant BA.2 before it, the newcomers (4 and 5) are particularly good at evading antibodies and infecting those who are vaccinated or previously infected.

Some epidemiologists are describing what’s happening as the “battle of omicron.”

Helix, a private lab that identifies COVID strains circulating in states, found BA.4 and BA.5 crept into Florida in May, and represent about 5% of samples. The majority of cases in Florida — about 58% — are still BA.2.12.1.

The omicron subvariant BA.4 was first identified in January in cases sequenced in South Africa, and BA.5 surfaced a month later. The omicron strain, BA.2.12.1, accounted for nearly all of South Africa’s daily cases at the end of February. By the end of April, however, BA.4 and BA.5 were found in 90% of all positive test samples analyzed in that nation, exemplifying the infectiousness of the newcomers.

Health officials say evidence seems to point to increasingly rapid, overlapping waves of new variants, which likely means more infections in Florida in the summer months ahead.

“My theory is we may see more variants, and they may be more contagious, but they will continue to get less problematic with fewer harmful outcomes,” said Dr. Mona Amin with Pediatric Associates in Fort Lauderdale.

In Florida, much like other states, COVID reporting has become spotty with many learning of the diagnosis through at-home tests. So far, wastewater has proven useful in learning the prevalence of the virus.

An analysis of wastewater in South Florida counties by Biobot Analytics, shows COVID cases are rising to levels last seen during the winter omicron wave in early 2022. Delta no longer is a factor in the state, Biobot’s analysis shows. The samples taken in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties show omicron and its subvariants are circulating at increasingly high levels.

With a seven-day daily average of more than 10,200 cases on Friday, Florida is a state classified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as having a “high level” of transmission. Broward and Miami-Dade counties are reporting a test positivity rate of more than 20%. Palm Beach County’s positivity rate is 18.9%. Health officials consider transmission levels under control when the rate is less than 5%.

Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist at the University of South Florida, points out, “We might actually (finally) be seeing some improvement in the Northeast, but in Florida — 3 in 4 people live in a high-risk county, based on the hospitalization-based measure.”

On Friday, 2,834 people were in Florida hospitals with COVID, representing nearly 5% of all beds, according to U.S. Health and Human Services data. That’s a significant increase from about 1,000 COVID patients in early April, but nowhere near the more than 17,000 people hospitalized during the delta wave in August 2021.

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